Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Leaving the Atocha Station is the second book I’ve read recently that has a definitive quirky hipsterism to it; the first was Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Both books have a first-person narration by an overly self-conscious young person who, in their hyper self-awareness, is both funny and off-putting. We relate to Lerner’s Adam and Heti’s Sheila (presumably herself) in that all of us have moments where we fear we are simply frauds. Adam and Sheila have their heightened sense of fraudulence further compounded by the fact that both are artists—writers (Adam is a poet who is in Spain on a fellowship supposedly writing a long historical poem on Franco and fascism, and Sheila has been working on writing a (terrible sounding) play forever)–and they fear that, in reality, they have nothing to say despite their surface credentials.
And yet, while we relate, both characters are somewhat annoying. Sheila is most annoying when she indulges in shameful rape fantasies that involve a man she is convinced is too hot for her, and Adam is annoying because he lies, wallows in a great deal of self-pity, and seems to have disdain for the women he’s involved with despite the fact that they put up with his jealousy and paranoia.
Both books are at their best when they step outside of the personal narrative to explore larger ideas. Leaving the Atocha Station is, in these moments, a rumination on language and language’s ability (or inability) to communicate the singular internal life of any person. Adam is, after all, not quite fluent in Spanish, and his translations of conversations help shed light on the ephemeral nature of language and how our relationships to the stories we tell ourselves shape our own experience of reality: “She described to me the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl whenever she thinks of it; he had been young when he died but seemed old to her now, or he had been old when he died but in her memories grew younger. She began to quote the cliches people had offered her about what time would do, how he was in a better place, or maybe she was just offering these cliches to me without irony…The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn’t deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole; although here I was basically guessing: all I knew was painting was mentioned with some bitterness or regret.”
The novel also has some beautiful moments of poetry, usually the result of Adam’s drug-induced haziness, and I was moved by Adam’s reaction to the March 11 Madrid train bombings, his shock and fear coupled simultaneously with his own critical and personal cerebral interaction with what has happened: “Why I thought, why everybody thought, that dying in a terrorist attack was more bound up with the inexorable logic of History than dying in a car crash or from lung caner, I couldn’t really say. I told Teresa that it derived from our impoverished sense of the political, that we could not think of the car or cigarette as Titadine because that would force us to confront our economic mode.”
Heti similarly plays with larger ideas: At its heart the novel seems to be asking the question “How can a person be truly free to create art?” Two of her friends have an ugly painting contest, and one friend thinks “freedom…is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever [one] wants…” But she goes on to explain, “That’s not freedom! That’s control, or power. Whereas…Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish.” The whole novel, which seems to actually be memoir (though I know it’s dangerous to conflate the author’s life with her character’s) is itself a pushing the boundaries of that freedom, hence the embarrassing rape fantasies and self-deprecation.
This narrative self-deprecation seems intentional on both authors’ parts, and, while I can respect the honesty that comes with these kinds of unreliable anti-heroes, it’s hard to hang out in their company for long stretches.
Despite that, both novels feel successful to me. They both were engaging and entertaining, and Adam and Sheila are postmodern Holden Caulfields: We relate to their struggles, and that relating can make us feel uncomfortable but can also hold up a mirror for us to reflect on the larger questions at the heart of being alive.